Kingston’s Pip McCallan serves as Down Syndrome Walk Ambassador

The clouds in the sky couldn’t possibly put a damper on the bright smiles shining from all of those at the Down Syndrome Walk here in Kingston on Saturday, Jun. 17, 2023, hosted by Pip McCallan (centre), one of the Canadian Down Syndome Society’s 2023 Ambassadors. Pictured here (L to R) are: Pip’s mom and the founder of Happy Soul Project Tara McCallan, Stella Splinter, Pip McCallan, Ruby Splinter, Pip’s Aunt Donna, and Noal McCallan, Pip’s brother.
Photo by Jemma Dooreleyers/Kingstonist.

“Atta girl, Pip!”
“That’s it, Pip!”
“You’re so brave, Pip!”

These are the shouts that burst from a gaggle of Pip McCallan’s friends and family surrounding the base of a multi-coloured inflatable rock-climbing structure as they watch her reach the top within seconds.

“This is her first time doing this,” says Tara McCallan, Pip’s mom, as the 10-year-old holds onto the 14-foot structure with one hand and turns to give a thumbs up with her other to her adoring crowd.

Once on the ground, she quickly returns to two other girls and throws her arms around them.

“I’m so happy,” she tells her mom.

And it’s no wonder, it had been a day filled with Pip’s favourite things: time spent with her friends, fun- and adrenaline-filled activities, firefighters, and, best of all, a dance party.

Why? Because Pip was fulfilling her due diligence of being one of 10 ambassadors for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society by engaging her community for the Down Syndrome Walk on Saturday, Jun. 17, 2023, along with a dance party led by Pip herself, of course. As a 2023 Ambassador, Pip, along with her family and school community, welcomed the larger community to the event.

Tara McCallan has been an advocate for people with Down Syndrome since Pip was diagnosed, three days after her birth in 2012. She created a blog called Happy Soul Project, typed up her feelings about becoming a mom to a child with Down Syndrome, hit post, and has been viral ever since. Her social media pages, which have a collective 80,000 followers, turned into a non-profit that spreads the message “Different is Beautiful” through an annual calendar, events in the community, and “Kick-It Capes” – capes for children in extraordinary medical situations to wear to showcase their bravery.

The Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS) is a non-profit organization that works to raise awareness, ensure inclusivity and advocacy, and provide resources to individuals with Down Syndrome and their families.

 One of these resources is a book that McCallan hopes can be found in every hospital and doctors office across Canada, called the New Parent Package – the same book that McCallan wanted to throw across the room when it was handed to her in that hospital room over a decade ago. Not fully understanding what a Down Syndrome diagnosis would be mean for her daughter and her young family, McCallan was devastated.

“Before I knew anything else, I was given this New Parent package that is very practical and factual and my husband really loved it,” she recalls. “But for me, I wanted a mom’s real raw look at it.”

Which is why, when the CDSS reached out to her to write a letter for the New Parent Package — almost a decade after McCallan’s Happy Soul Project posts about being “one of the lucky few” — she jumped at the opportunity.

“Writing that letter for them was like a redemption for how sad and guilty I felt after her diagnosis, and now, for Pip to be chosen as an Ambassador, it’s such a full-circle moment,” said McCallan.

“It makes me so proud to watch the self-advocate she is becoming.”

When Tara enrolled her children in their new school this fall, one that is closer to the accessible house they built, she knew it was the right fit for them, and not just because the colours of the school sports teams just so happen to be the same colours as the CDSS. But more importantly, because of the welcoming environment provided by her peers and her teachers. This all culminated in the school hosting Pip’s Down Syndrome Walk and all of the fun events associated with it.

Pip McCallan, front and centre, leads her friends during her dance party, part of a larger day of activities at her school during the Kingston edition of the Walk for Down Syndrome 2023. Photo by Jemma Dooreleyers/Kingstonist.

According to Pip, her favourite part of the day was the dance party and hanging out with her best friends, Stella and Ruby Splinter.

Stella Splinter is 11 years old; her favourite part of the day was getting to spend time with Pip. Her message for inclusion is simple:

“Don’t judge people by their appearance and give everybody a chance, because they can just warm into your heart.”

The event has left the principal feeling very proud of her school, students and community, but not surprised. 

“The school is representative of the community. We have an amazing community that comes together where everyone is one big family where everyone feels included,” she said.

“So, it feels like the obvious choice to be so welcoming and inclusive.” 

According to the Down Syndrome Association, there are approximately 45,000 people in Canada living with Down Syndrome. McCallan hopes that with awareness and inclusion initiatives, more people are inspired to self-advocate and welcome people with differences into their circles. 

“People need to meet people where they’re at and remember that we are all different in our own ways,” she said. “Happy Soul Project’s message is ‘what makes you different is what makes you beautiful,’ and the more people can embrace that, the greater community we will have in the end.”

Find Happy Soul Project on Facebook, Instagram and its website. To donate to the Canadian Down Syndrome Society or learn more, visit this link.

Editorial note: The name of the school Pip and her siblings attend has been omitted to protect the privacy of the children and their friends and fellow students.

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